COLUMBUS, Ohio — It takes a special kind of nerve to replace a coach called “Big Game” at a school that treats its football as solemnly as Oklahoma. It takes uncommon mettle to stand in a 109,088-maniac cauldron and stare across the field at Urban Meyer and see an equal. Maybe it helps to be young enough to pass for a fraternity pledge, young enough to not know any better. It definitely helps to have a triggerman like Baker Mayfield, an agitator who can take a hit and keep slinging.
Saturday night at Ohio Stadium provided stunning misery for the home throng and instantaneous proof for those still wondering in Norman. Lincoln Riley, a 34-year-old from Muleshoe, Tex., who was not old enough to drink when Bob Stoops led the Sooners to their last national title, has what it takes.
Big Game Lincoln has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Riley brought his team into the Horseshoe as a neophyte and left a burgeoning Oklahoma legend. The No. 5 Sooners swamped No. 2 Ohio State, 31-16, in Oklahoma’s first major performance since Stoops’s sudden retirement in June. The Buckeyes could not overcome the curious continuation of their offensive ineptitude, and they could not handle the offensive genius borne of the marriage between Riley and Mayfield, who brought Riley’s designs to life in the form of 386 passing yards and three touchdowns.
In Week 3 last season, the Buckeyes obliterated Oklahoma, 45-24, in Norman while Riley served as Stoops’s offensive coordinator. Ohio State entered Saturday a touchdown favorite, its uneven opening victory over Indiana notwithstanding. The Sooners dominated all game and finally erupted in the second half as Riley validated Oklahoma’s choice to make him the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“Confidence,” Oklahoma Athletic Director Joe Castiglione said. “Not arrogance. Confidence. He’s comfortable in his own skin. In that way, he’s very similar to Bob Stoops.”
Stoops was there Saturday night, enjoying retirement by watching the protege to whom he had entrusted his program. In place of a visor, Stoops wore jeans, sneakers, a pink button-down and a field pass labeled “Staff” that wasn’t fooling anybody in Ohio Stadium, or at least anybody with steel in the tips of their boots.
Stoops wanted Riley to replace him, and he probably would still be coaching if he didn’t feel so strongly about Riley’s ability. “That’s one part of this that doesn’t get enough appreciation,” Castiglione said. “It was very important for Coach Stoops that if he were to walk away, he would leave the program in great shape. He wanted the next person to take it further.”
It has only been two games, but it seems like they found the right guy. Riley coached wide receivers at Texas Tech and led pyrotechnic offenses at East Carolina before Stoops hired him as part of a staff overhaul in 2015. One day during spring ball that year, Castiglione sidled next to Stoops and shared his observations. Riley was cool beyond his years, a leader without really trying. “Is it just me, or do you notice certain characteristics to him that just seem to be natural?” Stoops nodded.
“We knew it would be just a matter of time before he got a big-time head coaching position somewhere,” Castiglione said.
He’s a big-time head coach at Oklahoma. Meyer entered with three national championships and a 19-7 record against top 10 teams. Riley looks like he started shaving last week. And yet it is Meyer whose program faces an offensive identity crisis and Riley whose team took an inside track to the College Football Playoff.
“I just like how he came in confident,” defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. “If y’all seen him this whole week, you never saw any type of nervousness or anxiousness. Like, he knew. He acted like he’d been here before.”
“He’s all young, handsome, swaggy. He’s got that confidence, you know? That’s contagious.”
The Sooners, if anything, could have beaten Ohio State by a larger margin. They overwhelmed Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett, who completed 19 of 35 passes. They could not seize control despite outgaining the Buckeyes 222 yards to 92 in the first half. Oklahoma ventured into Ohio State’s territory five times in the first half. Those trips resulted in a turnover on downs, two lost fumbles, a missed 37-yard field goal and, finally, a field goal inside the final minute of the second quarter that tied it at 3.
In the second half, Oklahoma started cashing in. On a beautifully designed play, Mayfield faked a handoff that froze OSU’s linebackers and hit fullback Dmitri Flowers sprinting across the middle into a vacant pasture. He rumbled 36 yards for a touchdown that tied it at 10. Mayfield’s precision on an 18-yard slant pass to Lee Morris sent Oklahoma ahead for good.
Meyer is among the finest and defining offensive minds of this era of college football, and at his disposal he has a quarterback who has started 31 games and won 27. But the Buckeyes ended last year in embarrassment, 31-0 losers to Clemson. And their offense sagged again Saturday night.
“It was awful,” Meyer said. “We got to get the damn thing fixed.”
Barrett was inconsistent, if not downright ineffective. His starting position, secure for three seasons, may be in jeopardy after he passed for only 183 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Midway through the third quarter, wide receiver K.J. Hill sprinted wide open in the back of the end zone, an easy touchdown. Barrett floated the ball too far into the back corner, and the Buckeyes settled for a field goal that left them ahead 13-10. Trying to claw back into the game down 24-13 Barrett misfired an interception to Parnell Motley.
Ohio Stadium had emptied out by the time it ended. Riley marched to midfield, in visor, red sweatshirt and khakis, a sartorial ode to his mentor. Riley will have more big games at Oklahoma, but few will be more satisfying than the first. Oklahoma had the right man for this one, and maybe all the big ones to come.
“We knew that before,” Castiglione said, standing just outside an end zone. Behind him stood Stoops, telling a few friends to go run on the field and celebrate. He declined to chat with a reporter. “It’s all them,” Stoops said, gesturing at a field where the memorable had happened.
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